After the interview, Tee took Allison back to her hotel room to rest up before dinner. I went back to my office. Just as I was unlocking the door, my phone vibrated—a call coming in.
I looked down and the bubbled readout read LAMPLAND.
Paul Lampland, from Midwestern State.
I quickly shut the office door behind me—so nervous I didn’t even bother to turn on the light—and I plopped down into my chair. I hit the connect button, and I said, “Yes—Paul, hello!”
“Tom?” Lampland asked. “How are you today?”
“I’m good,” I said. “Busy—we have a job candidate on campus today, and I’m on the hiring committee….”
“Well, that’s good—a hiring committee shows that the department has faith in you.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or more likely the department’s just short-handed.”
Lampland laughed like I’d made a joke. “Yes—well, I suppose I’d better get to the point. The hiring committee--our hiring committee—has decided to go with the other candidate.”
My heart skipped a beat. I was sitting in total darkness with the door closed, staring off into—nothing.
I said, “Damn.”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” Lampland said. A kind voice from the darkness, into my ear. “I know this is a disappointment for you. Leon Bloomfield told me this morning that it was very, very close—it was just a coin’s toss difference between the two of you.”
“Well, shit,” I said. “Just keep flipping the coin until my name comes up.”
Lampland laughed again. “I’m afraid we can’t do that.”
I took a deep breath. Felt tears coming on. “No, I suppose not.”
“I do want to tell you one thing,” Lampland said. “That we all really like you as a person. That we respect your teaching and your scholarship.”
“Thanks, Paul,” I said. I joggled my computer’s mouse to bring up the screen and get a little light in the room. I looked glumly at the cover photo—a picture I once took of a thunderstorm breaking in the Big Horn range, a sad tenth-rate Ansel Adams wannabe picture.
“We really felt we made a friend with you,” Lampland said.
“And, as a friend,” Lampland said. “I need to tell you that something’s up. I received—uh, an email, from an anonymous AOL account, that said just terrible things about you.”
“No kidding,” I said. Ted, with the AOL account. He was showing initiative, there. Or someone was telling him to take initiative. “Terrible how?”
“Oh—they accuse you of sexual harassment, embezzlement, physical violence, drug abuse….”
“Yeah,” I said.
“And—I don’t believe any of this,” Lampland said. “And I asked Leon and Barb and Buffy if they’d received anything, and they all said they hadn’t. I guess I got the email just because I’m department chair.”
“Yeah….” I was thinking—nothing. No—I was thinking blankness. Blank anger.
“So—as your friend, I guess I should just want to warn you that someone up there is out to—get you.”
I was silent a long time. The computer screen went dark again. I was in the dark. What to do? Nothing to do—except be pissed. It was personal. Everything was personal.
“Tom?” Lampland asked. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m still here.”
I went to the dinner for Allison Wigginton at Chrissy’s. Tee and Ted and Courtney were there, along with Earl and Constance. My dinner at Midwestern had been fun—good food, good company. My campus visit dinners when I was interviewing for SEKSU had been right here, a couple of tortured hours of pain and exhaustion mixed in with two interlocking actual hopes—one hope, that I might get the job—and the second hope, that if I did get the job it wouldn’t be as bad as it seemed.
Silly me, to have hopes.
I looked across the table at Allison—an obviously accomplished and smart woman—listening in an apparently interested way to something Earl was saying. I wondered if she was so desperate for a job that she’d take this one? If she was, was she also filled with dread at the prospect of working at Southeast Kansas State? Or did she have a sad hope that it might not be as bad as it seemed?
Once again I saw that Devon was right—that people were mysterious. You can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s heart. My own heart—I could know that one a little, feel it: it was black and hard and filled with cold anger.
Just then—in response to something I didn’t hear, Courtney said, “Yeah, well—I’m going to be around this department for a long, long, time.”
Yeah. I sat there--angry.
After dinner I was assigned to drive Allison back to her hotel. I stood by my car watching Allison say goodbye to everyone—cheerful and kind, shaking hands, telling Courtney and Tee what a wonderful visit it had been, telling Earl that he reminded her of her father, telling Constance that she looked forward to working with her in the fall. Allison was good. I’ve never been that easy with people.
“All set?” I asked her. “You need to stop at the store for anything?”
“No,” Allison said. “I’m fine.”
We got in my car and I drove around the south side of the university and past the big cemetery—the one with the monument for the unknown fetus, even though we couldn’t see it in the dark—and turned north on Front Street.
“I’m glad you’re the one driving me,” Allison said. “You’re the honest one, right?”
I laughed at that.
“I don’t know about honest,” I said. “I’m a bad liar, is all, so I try not to lie.”
“Close enough,” Allison said. “So, tell me—what’s going on here? I just feel—tension—everywhere.”
“Well, yeah, there is tension in the department,” I said. “It’s a long story.” I stopped the car at a red light across the street from fraternity row. Over on a side street were a couple of beer joints and a parking lot filled with drunk white boys milling around. A car honked and seven or eight boys all threw cans of beer at the car. One boy dropped his pants and waggled his pecker. Gulag State men and their dicks. I said, “Here’s some of our students.”
Allison said, “Nice.”
The light changed to green and I headed north.
“So,” I said. “The job you’re applying for is to replace a woman named Devon Shepherd, who died last fall.”
“Yeah, I heard that,” Allison said.
“That was tough,” I said. I thought before I spoke. “Devon and I were—close. We were—dating.”
I don’t know why I told her that. I didn’t talk about that much—not at all, really.
“I’m sorry,” Allison said.
“Yeah, it was tough.” I took a breath. “And then in January a Brit Lit professor committed suicide.”
“And then the other member of the hiring committee—”
“Yeah,” Allison said. “That Nancy lady. I asked about her and the chair said she was ill.”
“She’s in a coma, actually,” I said. “Somebody assaulted her—they don’t know who.”
“Damn!” Allison said again.
We stopped at another light. On the left the crumbling grain elevator loomed over us. Someday it was going to fall down. On the right was a vacant lot with a HEAL THIS LAND billboard.
Allison said, “This place isn’t what I expected.”
I didn’t say anything. I had no knowledge of her expectations for Weirton, for Southeast Kansas. Wheat fields? Wind farms? Kind colleagues? A department that cared about education? If she’d expected any of those things—anything close to those things—she was going to be disappointed, bummed out, and shit out of luck.
The light changed and we went on up the street, past a series of shuttered storefronts—and, on the right, in a tiny park, a 10-foot concrete statue of Pete the Prairie Dog, peering off into the shadows. Allison shook her head.
“Actually, this place is worse than it looks,” I said.
Allison scooted around in her seat to look at me. She asked, “You’re from Austin, right? How do you stand it here?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Allison didn’t say anything. We hit green lights all through what passed for downtown. Then we passed Mocol’s.
I said, “We have a good liquor store, at least.”
“I bet you need it.”
“Yep,” I said. “And there’s the Walmart on our right—we’re very proud of our Walmart.”
“How do I stand it?” I asked. I shrugged. “I don’t know, really. I guess ideally I’d like to try to focus on teaching the young people—”
“Is that enough?”
We were coming up on the Holiday Inn, where Allison was staying. I made a left and pulled into the parking lot and drove around to the entrance and stopped.
“Devon Shepherd asked me that same question once,” I said. “You know? If it was enough? And, like, I didn’t have an answer for her then. But I do now, and it’s—Fuck no, it’s not enough. And it’s never going to be enough.”
We sat silently for a moment. Then Allison said, “I’m sorry.”
“And, you know,” I said. I took a deep breath. I had fucking tears in my eyes. “I got some bad news today.”
“Oh?” Allison asked.
“Yeah, well—see, I applied for a job at another university, and I was a finalist, and I just this afternoon found out that I didn’t get it.”
Again, we sat silently. Inside the hotel lobby I could see the desk clerk pecking at a computer. I sighed.
“Wait a minute,” Allison said. “You’re applying for jobs to get out of here, and then you’re on the hiring committee trying to bring people in here?
“That’s right,” I said.
Allison shook her head. “Seems like you’ve got some sort of crazy moral conflict going on in your life.”
“I think so,” I said. “I’m pretty sure there is.”
I had reservations about Southeast Kansas State even before I took the job. Moving from busy Austin to isolated Weirton was a big change, and kind of intimidating. From the giant University of Texas to the flyspeck Southeast Kansas State. I discussed it with one of my professors from graduate school, who spent some time checking out SEKSU’s website and told me, shaking his head, “Man, I just don’t know what to say about this place.” Well, yeah. No kidding. I didn’t know what to say about the place, either, except that it was the only job I’d been offered. What was I supposed to do—stay in expensive, big-city Austin and cobble together a marginal precarious living teaching adjunct at UT and the community college? Or go to Bumfuck, Kansas, with a full-time job and health insurance?
I guess I’m a bourgeois at heart.
I took the damn job.
At the time I thought--Maybe it won’t be so bad. There’s electricity in Kansas, right? There’s cable TV, there’s internet. I can keep up with the world. But, you know, as it turned out, the internet wasn’t enough. The job turned out to really kind of suck.
The department just seemed—fucking crazy.
It was crazy beyond anything I’d read in any academic satire.
But I stupidly kept thinking—The craziness doesn’t matter.
I’ll just teach my classes.
I’ll teach my classes—I’ll ignore everything else. Endure everything else. Ignoring and enduring were things I was good at. Growing up in Port Lavaca I learned how to ignore my drunk daddy when he was beating on me, and I just took it and took it until he got bored and went to hit my mom or pass out or whatever. And then in middle school I learned how to ignore bullies and endure them, too, and wait them out. and I figured I could do the same in Weirton. Bullies are bullies. They’re like everyone else. They get bored. They move on.
I’ll teach my classes, I thought. I’ll endure the bullshit.
Eventually, I’ll find a better job.
I thought--Fuck this place.
Fuck these alleged people.
In the meantime—just teach the classes.
Just ignore all the other bullshit.
Try to ignore it. Try to endure it. Try--
Devon showed up a year later. Tee stuck her in the office next to mine, and we talked every day. For my first year, I’d tried my best to endure the grimness of day to day life in the department and I tried to focus on my teaching, on the students. I stayed silent—I grumbled to Lynnie about things, but I never talked to anyone in the department. Devon, though, was different. She was surprised and appalled at almost everything and everyone she encountered, and verbal about her distress. She was a talker. She couldn’t just ignore the nastiness of the place or the vulgarity of the people, she wanted to talk about it. Needed to talk about it. So we talked every day—she talked, I listened—in our offices, in the evenings over dinner, and we more or less became a couple. A Kansas romance. An academic romance. After a while I came to see SEKSU the way she did, a strange and grim educational prison on the desolate poisoned tundra of southeast Kansas.
Nancy gave me terrible teaching observations that first year, but beyond that the department really didn’t bother to fuck with me. But Devon—Devon taught CW and was unwanted, and Courtney and Nancy stepped on her, fucked with her, kicked her—they did their best to work her to death. Nancy was Devon’s faculty mentor, too, and because Devon was a fellow fiction writer, was even harder and crazier on Devon than she had been me. Devon’s workshop rules were too lenient, Nancy said. Devon’s workshop rules were too strict. Devon didn’t provide enough feedback to writing students. Devon didn’t provide the right kind of feedback. Devon used the internet too much. Devon assigned too much reading. Devon didn’t assign enough reading. Devon was too friendly.
Devon just did things the way things weren’t done at Gulag State.
I heard about it all, for months—for years—for the entire time I knew Devon.
And, you know, my advice to her was always the same advice I tried to take for myself. I told her to keep her head down, to teach the classes, find another job when she got a chance.
I told her to endure.
But fucking really.
I thought about that now—now, driving back home after dropping Allison Wigginton off, driving through Weirton’s dark, collapsing, ramshackle, rat-infested neighborhoods. I thought—Who wants to live that way? Who can live that way? Really?
Man, that was really some bad fucking advice, you know?
What the hell was I thinking?
Stand silently and take the pain while bullies beat on you.
Endure the fucking bastards who imprison you and torture you.
Really—that was terrible advice!
When I got home I got a beer and sat on the couch with Fuzzhead for a few minutes and thought. Then I put the kitty down and went to my office. I had Allison Wigginton’s contact information somewhere, in some document—and then I found her phone number in a copy of the campus visit itinerary and I typed it into my phone, and I texted her.
Allison this is Tom Holt
I think they’re going to offer you the job
my advice—don’t take it
this place is hell
I went back and sat on the couch with Fuzzhead. Looked at the news. Disaster everywhere, pain for everyone. America--the whole sad world--was becoming a greater Weirton.
Then my phone vibrated. Allison texting me back.
Tom I don’t need your advice about my career
I wouldn’t take the job anyway
Then, a few minutes later.